I’m not a big believer in the idea that the deceased are able to talk with the living. No amount of talk by so-called “mediums” convinces me that people in this life can connect with the dead through supernatural means. I once read that a famous celebrity promised his wife that if he died, she would someday see his presence revealed in a white feather floating in the air. I don’t think that ever happened, or we might have heard about it.
Instead, I believe that when it comes to all things supernatural, it is up to us to find meaning in everyday experiences that trace the lives of those we have lost. Yesterday, I felt the strong presence of my late wife in a teaching experience with children the same age that she once served.
As a substitute teacher the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work with classrooms ranging from first grade through middle school and high school. Having been in many teaching situations over the years, including adult and higher education, I’m exploring how I can expand that love of teaching at this point in my life.
It has been a challenge and a joy to learn how to work with students of all ages and abilities. Like my late wife, I’ve also worked with special needs students across a range of abilities. Her ultimate career choice was a preschool teacher, a bit different than the higher-paying public school positions to which she once planned to return, but her love of teaching young children won out.
I always knew why my wife loved teaching children that age. They are getting ready for the big world of kindergarten. They need guidance in social skills as well as basic learning in the alphabet and numbers. They also love to explore the arts and play.
As a teacher one learns to adjust to aptitudes and witness how personalities are already forming. It is also a calling to help form those personalities in an encouraging way.
That means you use what talents you have available to connect with kids. For me, that means read-aloud time and drawing. Those are my best teaching attributes. While moving from group to group during play time, I shared some drawing time with a left-handed little guy who absolutely loved the process of copying what I drew on the board. At one point I drew the head of a mouse. He then completed the body and legs, and drew a companion mouse next to the first.
Such are the serendipitous arrivals of teachable moments. Sometimes you make them happen. Sometimes you let them happen.
Over a twenty-year period my late wife experienced thousands, if not millions of such encounters. Those kids were a gift to her in life. Though her life ended earlier than she ever planned, the children and raised (our kids) made it the richest life imaginable. She saw it through their eyes, and the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. It will be eight years since she passed away on March 26, 2013. It was nice to feel a bit of connection with that life through some preschooler’s eyes.
A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.
I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.
Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.
From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.
Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.
The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.
Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.
An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.
I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.
Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.
The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.
Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!
So many of us are taught to not feel proud about having sexual feelings. Yet human beings are biologically wired to have sexual attractions of one form or another. Many of these are characterized as taboo or against the teachings of a particular religion. We’re told these feelings are sinful and are thereby urged to repress some of nature’s most powerful instincts.
Feelings of sexual desire are loosely characterized as “lust,” a word that bears a negative connotation in context with scripture and other moral guidebooks. To “lust” after something is characterized as a craven or base instinct, something to be resisted. The website Biblestudytools.com describes it this way:
Lust is a temptation and an evil that overcomes many of us. It is born of Satan and the flesh. Every single one of us is subject to lust. If we are to overcome it, we must be strong. Use these Bible verses to find out why you should resist lust, and use them to strengthen yourself.
The quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:28 is most often cited as a directive to resist lust at all costs:
28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Yet the natural curiosity to know more about the human body isn’t just about lust. There is also appreciation involved. Even scripture recognizes this aspect of adoration in the Book of Psalms, where a lover clearly lusts for his divine partner:
“Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” (7.3)
“Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” (7.7)
“My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” (1:13)
Okay, so now we know that exploring and expressing lust is not all bad. Many of us recognize its allure within us from a young age. I well recall, at the age of eight or so, reaching into my father’s closet to pull down copies of Playboy magazine. The sight of naked women fueled my desire even before I entirely knew what to do with it.
So strong was my urge to understand the female body that I took to tracing outlines of those women on the pages of Playboy. I stored those tracing paper drawings in the depths of my closet and returned the magazines to my father’s room.
I even drew images of naked women on the steam-covered bathroom mirror. On Sunday mornings the sight of Blondie’s buxom figure on the cartoon pages even got me going. I copied those cartoons too, but not only those. I began to replicate all sorts of cartoon figures on my own. I was learning to draw. To appreciate what I was seeing. That gave me a sense of ownership and power over my observations.
By the time I reached my early teens, I was drawing and painting regularly. My mother bought me paints and paper. I rendered wildlife that I’d seen and copied pictures from books. My desire to capture the essence of birds and other creatures was a lust of sorts.
As a sophomore in high school my drawing skills began to come together in all new ways. In a fit of drawing immersion combined with lust, I rendered highly-detailed copies of centerfolds from Playboy magazine as shown above. I didn’t always get the face quite right, but doing the shading on their bodies was captivating.
Then I reached college and took a life drawing class. My curiosity about the female and male body was greatly satisfied by drawing live figures. There was no lust in this brand of appreciation. My entire focus was on rendering the human figure with accuracy, detail and subtlety. This applied to both men and women.
It struck me as odd that when I arrived back at my college dorm room, male classmates would gather around to look at the drawings I’d done that day. To many of them, the images constituted “naked chicks” and while I laughed about it then, my interests were migrating from lust to appreciation.
Not long after college I hired a model on my own to pose nude for an afternoon drawing session. She arrived at my studio apartment, disrobed and posed on the couch, and left at the appointed time. I compensated her for the time, and did not feel any particular lust for her body while doing the drawings.
Yet I can’t honestly say that I never looked at pornography again. The nature and accessibility of naked images, especially of women, evolved with technology. I did a search of Playboy centerfolds and can identify the year and month that I last purchased that print magazine. It was 1994. In a strange twist two years after that, I was parked in a White Hen lot and looked down to find a Playboy magazine sticking out from beneath the parking block next to the sidewalk. I pulled out the magazine and was stunned to see that it was dated 1976. Patti McGuire was the centerfold. Had that magazine survived under that block for twenty years? I doubt it, but it was still strange to find it there.
These days it’s not just Playmates who show up half-naked or completely naked in the digital and real world. World-class athletes on social media know that a touch of sex sells. It’s part of the gig to attract followers, be they males lusting after fit girls or women appreciating the hard work it takes to look like that.
Society has grown to accept the sight of fully exposed female buttocks as a natural part of empowered fashion. Social media encourages nakedness at many levels, including women that willingly pose without clothes or get involved in the porn industry to make money. It’s seldom glamorous, as Rashida Jones shared in a telling Netflix series.
Exploitation, whether by self-choice or by revenge porn, is a far different enterprise than building appreciation for the human body. Some of the world’s greatest art features nude human beings. That is an accepted part of culture. Yet there’s also no avoiding that lust drives considerable occupation with the human figure as well.
I think the right kind of pride sits somewhere in between the worlds of lust and appreciation. Maintaining that balance is a sign of maturity and self-actualization. When I consider the manner in which attractive actresses are expected to bare all for movies, it makes me wonder how they feel about having their naked bodies out there for all of eternity. Women such as Marilyn Monroe were supposedly able to turn that lust magnetism on and off. It was a persona, they say. And yet, we tragically learned, it also wasn’t.
We all conduct our own mind experiments and learn our flaws and obsessions. The range of human sexual expression, orientation and gratification is far more diverse and appreciated now that society is becoming more honest about it. Clearly we still have a ways to go, and some argue that sexual images and exploitation are signs of a morally decaying society. Yet knowing about sex and having a better understanding of the human body ultimately empowers everyone in the end. Being educated and making choices is better than being repressed and succumbing to fears, guilt, and mistakes in conscience.
Ancient attitudes of automatic repression and hardline theology don’t do people any favors. They depend on a brand of hyperbole that comes from an age when sexuality was poorly understood, and lust along with it. It’s not true that people conduct adultery in their heart every time they look at a woman (or man) lustfully. Sometimes it’s just that: a look to wick off desire. Then we get back to appreciating the ones we love, and even making art that inspires appreciation of the human condition in all its forms.
Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:
Good day, I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads: Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size. Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print? I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol. Thanks in advance, Delinda
The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.
My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.
When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.
That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.
The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.
I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”
Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.
Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.
“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”
I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.
That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.
I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.
Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.
It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.
I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.
That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.
Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”
That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.
The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:
Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?
no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing.
If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow
then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know.
The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.
Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.
Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.
Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.
It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.
Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.
Eclipsed by circumstance
That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.
The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.
To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.
That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.
It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.
That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.
Seven years ago I visited a website called FitnessSingles.com. At first, it did not seem too promising. There were women all over the country, but only one in Batavia, Illinois where I lived. She looked cute enough; blonde hair and an athletic build. But I thought to myself, “That’s too convenient. She’s probably just an Avatar to get me to subscribe.”
But when I clicked on her photo the profile came up. “Huh,” I said out loud. “She’s real.”
We had our first date at a local restaurant and ordered drinks and artichoke dip. And we talked and talked. She looked quite pretty heading into the restaurant with curly blonde hair and a summer dress. I sat across from her at the table and wondered how it would all turn out.
It happened that a middle school teacher that had taught both of our children was seated with her husband at the next table over. She glanced at us a few times and finally connected the dots that we were out on a date. “Oh that’s great!” she chimed in. “You guys have a lot in common.”
It turns out that we do. Our first official date was a cycling ride in the countryside. She was fit for an upcoming half-Ironman so I had to ride pretty fast to stay on her tail. And that tail looked pretty cute in her bike shorts. We sat down for a break on the lawn of a high school out in the cornfields, and she asked, “Have you ever been out here?”
I replied, “I went to school here for three years.”
And that’s how our relationship proceeded. The more we talked, the more it turned out that we knew many of the same people. Both our daughters attended Augustana College. All our kids went through Batavia High School. And once they met, they all got along well together.
Which was a joy on our wedding day three years ago when they all joined in the wedding party and we celebrated joining our families together.
That is not to say there are no challenges to melding families. We’re like every married couple in having to figure out financial plans, living arrangements, and work-life balance. We’d done many things right and a few things wrong. Celebrating a happy anniversary is as much about working at marriage as it is about having a perfect one.
She came from a divorce. I came from the loss of a wife to cancer. Both of us had grief and some anger to work through as we figured our way forward from that first date. So we took our time using the “L” word because that puts a bit of weight on things as you begin to share worlds.
We began to share friend networks. She introduced me to her triathlon clan and I introduced her to my longtime buddies that had shared high school sports and college and lives together. That first Labor Day we traveled to Wisconsin and rode the Wright Stuff bike event, camped in tents, and hung out with a gaggle of teenagers grabbing a last bit of summer before September took over.
It all felt right. We kept on with our respective parenting duties as her kids migrated from teenage years to college with the typical bumps in the road. My children wrestled with memories of their mom and seeing their father in a relationship after their mother’s passing. I may have taken things a bit quickly but have no regrets in that aspect of life. I loved my late wife fully, and for 28 years.
I now love my wife as a wholly different person and in many respects, an essentially different life. To put it simply, I appreciate my Sue for the person that she is. That she is attentive and sincere. That she tells me she loves me. That she is disciplined in her health and fitness and flexibly devout in her beliefs. We’re a good pair, if I may say so myself.
Recently, on the cusp of all this Coronavirus stuff, we were scheduled to head down to Tucson for a triathlon training camp. That afternoon, the term “social distancing” first flew into the public sphere. As we rode to the airport, questions began to arise in our minds about whether we should go at all. But the airport was largely vacant, and the fellow passengers respectful of space, so we traveled there and back with no incident.
It made us think about how difficult it might have been had the virus struck while we were on a cruise trip in Europe last October. Her mother took us all on that adventure, and we jumped on and off the ship on day trips touring Naples, Florence, Pompeii and stops in France and Spain. It was a wonderful lark and one we never imagined. It kind of served as a belated honeymoon for the two of us.
But being on a cruise ship during a pandemic would not be fun. So much of life is like that. There’s a certain amount of risk in everything we do. Often the question of safety or wisdom is about timing or dumb luck. Had each of us not gone on that website the day we connected our lives would have spun off in different directions.
That’s why every anniversary is meaningful. Not every moment in life is happy, but we can be happy in having lived every moment, and appreciating them for better or worse. Doing that together is what life is all about.
When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.
With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.
By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.
Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.
Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.
That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.
Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.
The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.
These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.
It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.
That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed. My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.
I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com.
I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate
New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.
Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.
Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.
In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.
And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.
This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.
Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.
Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.
For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.
I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.
That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.
That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.
But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.
That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.
That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com
In 1976 as a sophomore at Luther College, I was enrolled in a Field Biology class taught by Dr. David Roslien, a professor whose course was a deep dive into every aspect of the natural world. I still have the lab journals richly recording our trips into the snows of January to capture voles and mice, and standing hip-deep in chill waters to study frogs in the ponds of northeast Iowa.
I did well in certain aspects of the coursework, but when it came to labs and genetics and such, I struggled. In true evolutionary fashion, Dr. Roslien saw that my aptitudes as a true biologist were limited. But he admired my artistic abilities as evidenced in a series of illustrations I did during our studies of frog species.
I don’t recall what motivated me to engage in this depth of depiction, but I can say that I was inspired by all the things we were studying. Part of our classwork involved capturing specimens of seven or eight different frog species. I got after it and found them all that spring. Then I set out to paint them in watercolor.
Working from photographs I found in some book about frogs, I painted furiously over a period of two nights. The results were some of the most detailed illustrations I’d yet done in life. I was nineteen years old. And obsessed with real-life depictions.
The spring peeper and gray treefrog illustrations were inspired by real-life encounters shining flashlights to find specimens on chill spring nights. We’d listened as well to the daytime calls of chorus frogs singing from flooded ditches. And toads whistling from dusk well into the night.
But midway through the course, Dr. Roslien pulled me aside to let me know the truth about my future as a biologist. “I’ve not sure you’re a pure scientist,” I recall him sharing with me. “But you finish those six frog drawings and stuff those birds in that artsy way you do, and we’ll give you a B. But I’ve already talked to the Art Department. They’re eager to have you over there.”
And that’s how it transpired that I became an Art Major with a minor in English. I didn’t give up wildlife art. In fact I sold hundreds of paintings over the years. While I didn’t become world-famous during the peak of the wildlife art boom in the late 70s and through the 80s, I did get chosen for some world-class shows at the Brookfield Zoological Society and other venues.
It was a competitive scene for sure. Many wildlife artists depended on photos to create original works. Some copied them outright, even projecting images on the canvas to copy the exact details.
Recently I got to see the frog drawings I’d done all those years ago. They’d existed mostly in my mind for the last 40+ years. I knew that I’d done an exceptional job on detail back then. I took great pride in doing so, working on the craft of “getting things right.” That’s always a good thing.
But my real pleasure comes in knowing that my professor lovingly framed and preserved those drawings as kept them as a symbol of his teaching and influence on a young man hoping to find his way in the world.
So while I’m not famous as an artist in terms of wealth or following, it has been a great journey nonetheless. And seeing those paintings from long ago offers inspiration for a new day.